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Leisure and work today
Gratton and Taylor (2004) provide an economic perspective on the changing relationship between work and leisure over recent years. The economic theory of ‘income/leisure trade-off’ posits that work and leisure time operate in connected markets, mediated in particular by the wage rate: workers choose more or less work depending on their own desires and needs and on the going wage rate*/that is, what employers will pay the worker to give up an hour of leisure time. The changes seen in work patterns in Britain over recent years do not, however, conform to the predictions of the trade-off model. Gratton and Taylor conclude that the model, as normally promulgated, is too simplistic and ignores the power of employers in the market situation and the social realities of the labor market.
Reviewing the changes that have taken place in work and the economy, in the family and social structure, and in leisure and culture in Britain, over the last 25 years, Critcher and Bramham (2004) conclude that the analysis of Clarke and Critcher (1985) stands the test of time. Changes in the labor market have been such that increasing productivity and wealth have failed to produce the anticipated across the board increase in prosperity and leisure time, but have resulted in a growing division between those with highly skilled and paid and pressurized jobs and the casualized and marginalized. Moreover, changes in family and household structures and patterns of child-bearing and rearing have not, Critcher and Bramham argue, dislodged the family or household unit as the major site for leisure.
However, the experiences of leisure and unpaid work in the household are not gender neutral. Kay (2001) argues that within households, the capacity of male and female partners to individually exercise choice in leisure is highly contingent upon explicit or implicit negotiation between them. Many studies have shown that, even when both partners are working, women still make a significantly greater contribution to domestic tasks, and there are key differences between men’s ability to preserve personal leisure time, and the much more limited capacity of women to do so.
This replicates traditional gender ideologies and indicates a divide in men and women’s approaches to reconciling the interests of ‘self ’ with those of ‘family’. As individuals, men and women appear to give different priority to the work, family, leisure domains of their collective life, while simultaneously striving to achieve a mutually satisfying joint lifestyle. Kay argues that leisure is a significant domain of relative freedom and a primary site in which men and women can actively construct responses to social change.
She considers that the recognition of this can contribute, at both a conceptual and empirical level, to a holistic understanding of contemporary lived experience; but that it raises the question about the extent to which we can realistically talk of families, collectively, being equipped to resolve the work_/life dilemma.
Gender plays a key role in patterns of work and leisure, and the impacts of contemporary ways of working are often different for men and women. Paid work is increasingly dominating many people’s lives, for both men and women (Lewis et al ., 2003; Perlow, 1999). Although excessive workloads can be experienced as oppressive, for many people work is what they apparently choose to spend their time on and enjoy doing. Moreover, the boundaries between work and non-work are, for many, becoming fuzzier and may be crowding out time and energy for personal life and leisure.
In this context we may ask whether post-industrial work is the new leisure, viewed as an activity of choice and a source of enjoyment (Lewis, 2003a). For example, a study of accountants indicated that the dominance of work over other activities was often seen as a life-choice, particularly amongst men where intense work involvement may be linked to professional identity (Lewis et al ., 2002). Yet it is important to recognize the complex interplay between social norms, the attribution of choice, and the perception of satisfaction and enjoyment.
Occupational identity is constructed within a given social context; and there is a danger that explanations of the dominance of paid work in people’s lives which focus on the individual tend to underestimate the constraints under which choices and identities are constructed. Thus, in accountancy, as in other professions, working long hours to please the client becomes identity affirming. But this is a highly gendered view that promotes work patterns based on assumptions of traditional male provider families and excludes substantial involvement in family care or other activities.
Equally, women often feel less ‘free’ to choose to work long hours because of family commitments. Male gendered views of work also leads to the assumption of inevitability, so that the possibility of working in other ways, which may be equally professional and identity affirming but less all-encompassing, leaving time for other activities, is not explored.
People often talk about choice and working long hours because they enjoy the work, due to the vision of other choices being limited. Equally, ‘choice’ may be an illusion when working harder and longer is an inevitable consequence of changes in work and organizations, such as downsizing. Inevitably some people do gain a sense of enjoyment from intense work, but Lewis (2003a) argues that post-industrial work cannot be unproblematically regarded as the new leisure. Nevertheless, if work is taking over from leisure and other personal activities on a wide scale, it is important to examine the broader and long-term effects on individual well-being, families and communities.
Growing awareness of such issues heralded the development of what become known as family friendly employment policies, or more recently work_/life policies, implemented ostensibly to enhance well-being and equal opportunities, but in reality, largely driven by business concerns such as recruitment and retention. These policies, which could also support the integration of leisure and work, include flexible working arrangements (the opportunity to vary where and when work is accomplished). They also include opportunities for working less, including part time or reduced hours. However, take up of opportunities to work reduced hours tends to be low, particularly among men and especially in white collar work where to do so is frequently perceived to be career limiting (Lewis et al., 2002; Perlow, 1998).
Iso-Ahola and Mannell (2004) examine the reciprocal relationship between leisure and health in contemporary context. They recognize that many people feel stressed because of financial difficulties and the dominance of work, and that in such situations leisure is used primarily for recuperation from work. The result is a passive leisure lifestyle and a reactive approach to personal health. They argue, on the basis of considerable research, that active leisure is important for health and well-being.
Participation in both physical and non-physical leisure activities has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, produce positive moods and enhance self-esteem and self-concept, facilitate social interaction, increase general psychological well-being and life satisfaction, and improve cognitive functioning. However, many people fail to discover active leisure. Trying new things, and mastering challenges, is discouraged and undermined by the social system and environment.
And maintaining motivation for active leisure is only possible if it is marked by enjoyment. Of course, active leisure is not a panacea. If it is used as avoidance behavior in order not to face up to problems which require attention, it can increase stress; and for people who are experiencing heavy demands from work and family, trying to undertake too much active leisure may exacerbate rather than ameliorate stress.
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